Sunday, 22 July 2012

'Electrick Children' and 'Killer Joe': review round-up

It's time (well way past time, if I'm honest) for another review round-up. Recently access to a computer and time to write have been rare, though I've now moved house (!) and I should have a new computer within the next week or so. In other words: this blog will soon be getting serious attention again.

I'm going to save my review of 'The Dark Knight Rises' for a full article, in order to explain why I really, really didn't enjoy it - a position I imagine I have to take time and thought to defend, judging by the otherwise unanimous praise it's attracted. The fact that disliking the film places me in company with Chris Tookey of the Mail is cause for concern, but I can't pretend I didn't find it to be joyless, bloated and narratively very messy indeed (though Anne Hathaway was amazing as Catwoman).

But in lieu of the time to do that proper write-up now, here are two short appraisals of some smaller films what I saw:

'Killer Joe'
The second really enjoyable Matthew McConaughey movie in as many weeks - following his show-stealing performance in 'Magic Mike' - 'Killer Joe' is as entertaining as it is troubling and sadistic: a taut little thriller about an infighting trailer park family who stumble into serious trouble after haplessly hiring the titular freelance murderer. The performances are uniformly excellent, from Juno Temple's enigmatic turn as the disturbed young girl (is she tragically naive or entirely cruel?) to Emile Hirsch as her pathetic older brother and Thomas Haden Church as their impotent, browbeaten father. Yet McConaughey is obviously the stand-out performer, giving Joe a disarming Texan gentility that renders his remorseless and sexually violent killer even more creepy.

Director William Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts - author of the original stageplay - deliver a memorable and disturbing little picture, which culminates in a masterful third act which plays out as one scene set around the family dinner table - one which won't help drive sales of KFC and may serve as a cold shower for any ladies still breathless from seeing the lead actor parading about as a male stripper the week previous. The whole thing plays as satirical, especially in its darkest moments, though it isn't entirely clear what the target is. That would ordinarily leave me struggling to justify the ultra-violence, but 'Killer Joe' is too well crafted and cast for that to present much of a problem.

'Electrick Children'
This quirksome American indie sees a naive Mormon virgin (Julia Garner) flee her closed, rural community - lead by her preacher father bafflingly played by Billy Zane - after convincing herself that she has been made pregnant by rock and roll music after stumbling upon one of her mother's old cassette tapes. On the outside she meets, and forms an instant connection with, Rory Culkin's music scene hanger-on/skateboarder. Her older brother, Mr. Will (Bill Sage), is also along for the ride, having been cast out after being accused of fathering the child.

Is the girl really pregnant from music or is she carrying the son of God? Or is there some other, more rational, reason for the whole thing? I'm dammed if I know. Perhaps the lack of answers (or even interesting questions) wouldn't be so terrible if the 96 minutes spent in the company of these people didn't feel so terminally dull. It's a horrifically insincere poser of a movie, so concerned with seeming accidentally hip that it forgets to have a story, relatable characters or a sense of purpose.

Friday, 13 July 2012

'Brave', 'Magic Mike', 'Seeking a Friend For the End of the World', 'Woody Allen: A Documentary'

Not to get all confessional, but I'm still having a bit of a rough time at the moment (boo hoo!) so I haven't been updating as often as I would like. But I've got a little bit of time at a computer right now so I thought I'd do a few more mini-reviews, discussing the films I've seen over the past week. I hope you check back again soon when I hope to return to more consistent blogging. Anyway, here goes...

Pixar's first non-sequel since the phenomenal 'Up', 'Brave' was a troubled production which saw original director Brenda Chapman replaced as a result of "creative differences" midway through. With that in mind it's pretty amazing that the final film is such a fine addition to the studio's pantheon: a mature and nuanced mother-daughter bonding story that's pretty touching and, as usual, beautifully animated. The backgrounds are richly detailed and the character animation is peerless, particularly for the film's hero, Scottish Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) - a determinedly individual teenage redhead, and skilled shot with a bow - resentful of her mother's (Emma Thompson) attempts to make her a courtly lady and marry her off to a rival family's prince.

At a first glance it seems as if the decision to make her father (Billy Connolly), the king, indifferent to the whole arranged marriage thing (with all the men in the film lovably feckless and harmless) wrongly casts patriarchy as the oppression of women by other women. However, a second act twist that I won't spoil here reveals the purpose behind the framing of the story as Merida versus the queen and confirms that Pixar deserve the benefit of the doubt from their audience. The central conceit is genius when it gets going and ensures that this is a genuine female empowerment tale without being at all condescending or in the least trite.

'Magic Mike'
Steven Soderbergh is on a good run at the moment, something which makes his impending retirement a real shame. 'Contagion' and 'Haywire' rank among the most enjoyable films of the last twelve months, and now 'Magic Mike' can be added to that list. Based on star Channing Tatum's own experiences as a male stripper, this slightly moralistic and overlong tale is more than salvaged by a fine - and extremely intense - performance by Matthew McConaughey and a couple of really funny scenes. Tatum confirms that he is a genuine star, a quadruple threat: showcasing some amazing dancing chops to add to his established gifts for action ('Haywire', 'Fighting'), comedy ('21 Jump Street') and romance ('Dear John').

'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World'
Perhaps the year's most pleasant surprise, this apocalypse dramedy sees Steve Carell and Keira Knightley forming an unlikely friendship with only days to go before an asteroid destroys the planet. It's a sublimely sweet little movie from 'Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist' scribe Lorene Scafaria, which skillfully combines genuine heartfelt emotion with black comedy. There are some really profound musings on love, life and regret here, but also some of the best comic moments of the year as people react to the end of days in a myriad of psychotic and self-deluding ways.

For her part Knightley is uncharacteristically winsome as the young, zesty one - never overselling the kookiness factor - whilst Carell channels the downbeat introvert persona that has worked so well in previous dramatic efforts to equally great effect. It makes for an appealing screen pairing in a movie that's life-affirming without being overly saccharine. Perhaps it's because it tapped into my current emotional state, but I found this film really emotional.

'Woody Allen: A Documentary'
A nice little career overview with unprecedented access to its interview shy subject, this doc gives an insight into Allen's work methods and personal life, even spending a reasonable amount of time on all that stuff - ensuring that it's not quite a whitewash, even if it's overall very positive. There are also interview segments with many of his collaborators and stars, as well as dozens of hilarious clips from his best films and old TV appearances - all of view do a great job of showcasing Allen's comic genius and razor-sharp wit. There's nothing here for non-fans, but those who already appreciate the great man will find much to like in this entertaining look at everything from 'What's New Pussycat' to 'Midnight in Paris'.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

'The Amazing Spider-Man', 'Snow White and the Huntsman' and 'Your Sister's Sister': review round-up

Love that scene and that movie.

Dearest readers! I have been remiss of late in providing "content" for this blog. First there was a (successful) trial with a website, who want me to write for them as an assistant editor soon. Then came a trip to a small film festival in Amsterdam. And now a painful break-up with my long-term girlfriend which has left me - for practical and emotional reasons - unable to write for this blog. It happened at the weekend, after seven deliriously happy years, and that's all I'll say about it here because this isn't and never will be that sort of blog (not that there's anything wrong with that). I just wanted to account for my tardiness.

In any case, I have been able to see a few films over the last few days and whilst I can't be bothered to give them full reviews at this time, I thought it'd be a nice distraction to come on here and summarise my thoughts.

Starting with...

'The Amazing Spider-Man'
With great power comes great responsibility, and Sony have abused theirs with this cynical "franchise re-boot" that re-tells the Peter Parker origin story with some 'Batman Begins' grittiness that's, like, sooo 2005. They've also recast Parker (played by The Spectacular Andrew Garfield) as an angsty emo skater kid in a move that feels even more outdated. "This is what the kids like, right?" seems to be the question on the lips of executives, who also play up the romantic aspect of Spidey's relationship with High School sweetheart Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), presumably in an attempt to make Spider-Man the next 'Twilight'.

The cast is uniformly great, with Martin Sheen and Sally Field taking on Uncle Ben and Aunt May respectively, whilst Rhys Ifans is a good fit as Dr. Curt Connors (AKA The Lizard) even if the film doesn't know what to do with him and the script restricts him to mostly pseudo-science exposition. And though I didn't like '500 Days (of Summer)' at all, director Marc Webb - the most awesome name-related coincidence since German football club Wolfsburg were managed by Wolfgang Wolf - does a pretty decent job with both the action scenes and some of the Spider-Man as metaphor for puberty teenage growth moments. In fact the film's highlight is easily the comic sequence during which Parker first encounters his super-strength, smashing his bed-side alarm clock.

It's hokey and cheesy to an extent that will probably grate with even fans of Sam Raimi's trilogy, with some truly god awful moments whenever the dialogue reaches for profound and the action attempts to carry some kind of great weight (such as when a New York construction crew come to Spidey's aid in improbable and extremely goofy fashion) but it does feel like a comic book, particularly when it comes to the Lizard's stupid grand scheme (turn everyone into lizards for some reason) and how Spider-Man moves during fights. The animation of Spider-Man doing his thing, swinging on webs and ducking and diving during bouts, is far superior to any other filmic translation of the character to date.

'The Amazing Spider-Man' hops wildly between being terrible and pretty damn good. And it's way too long and a little too slow. But it isn't the car crash I was expecting and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing an improved sequel with the same cast and, perhaps, a different creative team behind the camera. Oh, and the 3D is terrible: neither subtly providing depth or doing much obvious, in-your-face trickery. I removed my glasses during some of the non-action scenes and - at least from what I could tell - they were just 2D. So I reluctantly find myself agreeing with the "it's just a con" brigade this time around.

If I seem to have been overly kind to the Spider-Man movie, it might have something to do that I went into it right off the back of...

'Snow White and the Huntsman'
Totally terrible and without a single redeeming quality. Except maybe some of the special effects design concerning the transformative powers of Charlize Theron's evil Queen. For one thing it's brazenly ripping off a half-dozen better movies in every frame. There's a whole sequence lifted from 'Princess Mononoke', loads and loads of people-walking-over-mountains stuff captured by the second unit which owes an obvious debt to the 'Lord of the Rings' films, Kristen Stewart's Snow White gets dressed up in battle armour in a re-imagining that recalls Tim Burton's dreadful 'Alice in Wonderland' and the staging of the climatic battle - which sees cavalry charging across a beach - is almost shot-for-shot identical to the end of Ridley Scott's 'Robin Hood'.

Chris "Thundergod" Hemsworth has nothing to do aside from a ridiculous Scottish accent as the Huntsman, whilst Stewart - obviously not an unattractive woman - is totally miscast as the "fairest of them all". Particularly as she can't smile without gurning. She pouts her way through the entire movie, her character has no personality and it's one of those horrible narratives in which she triumphs because of her superior royal blood. I actually hate this movie. This wretched, distended piece of crap movie. If I hadn't recently sat through 'Rock of Ages' this might be the worst film of the year so far that I've seen (bear in mind that I don't go see stuff like 'Think Like a Man' or 'Jack and Jill').

The audience I saw it with did genuinely seem to connect with the seven dwarves when they showed up, but that's probably because they are played by established thesps (including Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane) in miniature. Though this is a morally dubious move, taking away acting roles from real dwarf performers who make a living of exactly this type of film, it does work surprisingly well and they represent the only characters in the movie worth giving a damn about. Even if every joke around them is basically "aw, aren't they small!"

'Your Sister's Sister'
Unquestionably the year's biggest disappointment to-date, this one doesn't hold a candle to director Lynne Shelton's previous little indie movies: 'Humpday' and 'My Effortless Brilliance'. A miscast Emily Blunt, with a wildly varying American accent, is one of the key flaws, but mainly it fails because the little human drama just tries to go a little too big in the final third. It's the same problem with other recent "Mumblecore" forays into the mainstream - such as 'Cyrus' and 'Jeff, Who Lives at Home' - both co-directed by this film's male lead Mark Duplass.

The first half enjoys the same low-key, well-observed vibe of previous films, as an uneasy love-triangle type thing develops between those stars and Rosemarie DeWitt (who plays Blunt's drunken baby-obsessed lesbian sister). DeWitt is the best thing in it and, even as her character becomes less and less appealing, she is terrific. But when a high-stakes dramatic reveal is made the whole thing turns to shit. I don't want to spoil it so I'll just say it makes little sense (both as a real-world instance and in terms of these characters) and takes the film in a direction it didn't need to go. The smaller relationship drama was interesting without the need to inject gimmicky and contrived last-act soap opera.